Thank you so much for inviting me. And thank you most of all for everything you have done and are doing to improve education and increase opportunity. Nothing this government or the last government has tried to do with academies could have happened without your hard work and dedication. You didn’t do it for the fame or money, but because of what you have done, the lives of tens of thousands have been changed for the better. So thank you and thank you to the IAA for the fantastic support it has given to the academies programme. And finally, and in particular, a big thank you to Mike [Butler - IAA Chair].
I know he is standing down as IAA chair shortly so I wanted to take this opportunity to put on the record my and the Department’s gratitude for his passion, enthusiasm and commitment, and for everything he has done in the course of education.
So as part of my thank you to Mike let me start by saying that I agree with him entirely that the work of academies in areas of deprivation and with disadvantaged young people must remain a key part of the programme.
You know the figures but I am going to say them again.
- Children not on FSM are twice as likely to get five good GCSEs as those who are on FSM.
- Last year 40 out of 80,000 children on FSM went onto Oxford or Cambridge.
- Children who attend private schools are three times more likely to achieve three A-grade A Levels than those who attend state-funded schools.
- Gaps in attainment start young and get worse as children grow older.
These figures are a reproach to us all.
Confronting these challenges is what gave the Academies programme its moral purpose. I know it is what drove Andrew Adonis as it is what drove Joel Klein, the former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Mike Feinberg, the inspirational founders of the KIPP programme, whom I was lucky enough to meet last week. We went to the King Solomon Academy in Westminster where we saw brilliant, energetic teaching and fantastic switched on children. Joel said something very simple, but very powerful: ‘If we can do it here, why can’t we do it anywhere?’.
It is that simple thought that drives so many involved with academies. And it is what continues to drive heads, sponsors and teachers to work flat out, day in day out, providing opportunity, raising aspiration and raising standards.
And we know that academies do raise standards. Not at all the same rate, but across the board, average GCSE results are improving at about twice the rate of the rest of the secondary sector. More than a quarter of you are rated outstanding by Ofsted - compared to under a fifth of all maintained schools.
Many of you in this room were the pioneers and it is because of your success and hard work that we have been able to roll the academies programme forward as Lord Adonis and Tony Blair had always planned. I am very happy to pay tribute to them and before them to Ken Baker and CTCs - because without them, we would not now be able to open up the potential of academy freedoms to thousands more schools.
I was the lucky person who had the task of introducing the Academies Bill to the House of Lords on my second day in the job.
I know some people wondered what the rush was. Well, the rush was that children only get one shot at education. When all the evidence from around the world shows that there is a very strong correlation between top-performing education systems and autonomy at school level, Michael Gove was impatient - rightly so - to extend these freedoms to others.
As a result of that Bill we have opened up academy status to every single state primary, secondary and special school which wants it.
What has been particularly exciting in recent months has been the number of approaches that we have been having from schools wanting to become academies in chains or clusters. I recognise that at the time of the Academies Act last summer the key message coming across was about autonomy. What has become clear to me when talking to schools is that perhaps even more powerful than autonomy is the combination of autonomy and partnership. That seems to me to combine the advantages of professional freedom, with the real move that there has been in recent years towards schools working together and learning from each other.
We don’t want academies to be seen as islands - and nor do the academy principals that I talk to. That is one of the reasons why we said in the Academies Act that we expected outstanding schools which wanted to convert to partner another local school which would benefit from their support.
As you will know, in November we announced a further opening up of the programme by saying that any school could apply for academy status, regardless of its Ofsted rating, if it applied as part of a group with a school that was rated as outstanding or good with outstanding features. There has been a strong response to that, as schools have come up with their own ideas for working together - groups of secondaries, or primaries, or primaries clustered around a secondary, perhaps with a special school. This development seems to me to go with the grain of the culture of schools, and the fact that it is bubbling from the bottom up makes me think that it is all the more powerful.
We continue to roll the programme out and extend its freedoms to others. The new Education Bill, introduced in the House of Commons last week, extends the academies programme to FE and sixth-form colleges and also to alternative provision.
So when I look back over the last six months, what do I see?
More than one academy opening every working day, and the interest continuing to grow.
10 per cent of secondary schools are now academies.
The growing success of multi-academy chains like Harris or ARK - working with weak schools to raise standards with a distinctive ethos and strong leadership.
All-through academies up and running.
The first special schools going through the application process to open later this year.
The first generation of university technical colleges and studio schools on track - offering high-quality, work-based technical and vocational education. I am a huge fan of UTCs and studio schools. While I can probably never match the sheer energy and enthusiasm of Ken Baker, I support wholeheartedly what he is trying to. With the UTC movement picking up pace and the review of vocational qualifications being carried out by Alison Wolf, I think we have a fantastic opportunity to make a profound and positive change to the education.
The independent sector - HE and FE, charities, business and other groups with good track records keen to sponsor projects, now the brakes have been let off the programme.
And the first Free Schools now set to open in September in under a year - with eight projects having their business cases approved last week, and with another 35 applications moving forward.
So we have made a brisk start. But there is more to do. Where there is much to admire and build on in the current system, there are still too many weak schools in deprived areas. Teaching is only rated as satisfactory in half of our schools. And we’re slipping back against our international rivals - falling from fourth to sixteenth in science, seventh to 25th in literacy, and eighth to 28th in maths in the latest PISA rankings. Despite all the efforts of recent years, the rest of the world has not been standing still.
Autonomy and accountability
So that’s why the white paper and Education Bill set high aspirations for the whole education system.
International evidence shows that freedom for schools, coupled with sharper public accountability, is the key to driving up standards.
So we’re freeing outstanding schools and colleges from inspections - so Ofsted concentrates on those performing less well.
We are legislating so that Ofqual makes sure our exams keep pace with international standards.
We are overhauling vocational qualifications through Professor Alison Wolf’s review to make sure young people are equipped with the skills employers need.
It’s also why we’ve introduced the English Baccalaureate, about which I suspect some of you have views, to make sure that while students get the broadest possible curriculum, their parents know exactly how they perform in the core subjects at 16, just as they do in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
And it’s why we’ve set tougher but fairer floor targets.
We want firm, decisive action when results are persistently below this, where management is weak with little capacity to improve, or when there is serious Ofsted concern.
That’s why we’re extending ministers’ intervention powers in underperforming schools.
And why we’ve appointed Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, the Chief Executive of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation, as our new Schools Commissioner.
Few in education have her pedigree, quality or experience. And she won’t be shy in challenging local authorities and heads to come up with robust improvement plans - brokering academy arrangements, recruiting sponsors, enthusing heads and governors to go for academy status, and promoting Free Schools to prospective proposers.
I know that there has been a lot of emphasis on the structural reforms we have introduced - the academies and Free Schools. But structures without people are nothing. We all know that the key to good schools are great heads and great teaching. So the purpose of the structural change is to give heads and teachers greater freedom and more control over their own destiny, so that they can get on with doing what they do best - teaching and running their schools.
And that brings me - finally and you might think belatedly - to the theme of your conference: Academies, the new orthodoxy. L&G, let me make a confession: I am suspicious of orthodoxies. Orthodoxies tend to be top down, inflexible and controlling. They value order and consistency over innovation and freedom. What is so exciting at the moment is that ideas are bubbling up from below - teachers who want to set up Free Schools, rural primary schools wanting to form a chain and cluster around a secondary school, parents wanting to set up schools in libraries and yes, in the Department for Education. One of the points we made early on about the Academies Bill was that our approach was permissive, not coercive. So whether the Academies programme is a success and becomes the norm is not up to me, but to you and the thousands of people like you.
So let me end where I started: in thanking you for what you have done and in looking forward to working with you to try answer the question posed to me last week by Joel Klein, ‘If we can do it here, why can’t we do it anywhere?’.